‘Double Exposure’ (1982): Glossy, violent psycho-thriller is rediscovered

A snazzy little psychological slasher/giallo, where a photographer becomes (or does he?) the killer of his beautiful models.

By Paul Mavis

Double Exposure, the lurid, exceedingly violent 1982 slasher flick from Crown International Pictures, starring Michael Callan, Joanna Pettet, James Stacy, Cleavon Little, Pamela Hensley, Seymour Cassel, Robert Tessier, and Sally Kirkland, is now out in a sweet Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Vinegar Syndrome, featuring a brand spanking new 2k scan of the original camera negative, along with some tasty bonuses. Initially begun as an updated expansion of Callan’s and director William Byron Hillman’s earlier psycho-thriller from 1974, The Photographer, Double Exposure was then overhauled into its own gory, T&A suspenser, with surprisingly successful results…but very little box office. A solid cult following has sprung up around it, however, with slasher fans who appreciate Double Exposure’s unified, unsettling vision and glossy widescreen execution.

DE1

Freelance photographer Adrian Wilde (Michael Callan) is having trouble sleeping at night…because he keeps dreaming he’s murdering his models in sickeningly violent fashion. Talks with his shrink Dr. Frank Curtis (Seymour Cassel) aren’t helping, nor is discussing these graphic night terrors with his hot-headed brother, B.J. (James Stacy), a former stunt driver who lost his leg and arm―and subsequently his wife when they divorced―in a terrible accident. If these were only dreams, perhaps Adrian could live with them…but suddenly, the dreams start coming true, and detectives Fontaine and Buckhold (Pamela Hensley and David Young) are on the case, pressing the increasingly unhinged Adrian who, in turn, quickly comes to believe he is killing the models. And that’s bad news for his new girlfriend, Mindy Jordache (Joanna Pettet).

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Prior to a Scorpion Releasing DVD a few years ago (you never called me, Katarina…), I hadn’t seen Double Exposure since I caught it on a crappy pan-and-scan VHS tape back in the mid-80s (do you remember how exciting it was to scour over rack after rack of big, clumsy VHS boxes, looking for something cool and obscure?). However, it always stayed in my mind because it delivered more than many of the cheap, derivative “slasher” flicks that were flooding the market at that time. Sporting a better-than-average cast, and shot in glossier-than-expected anamorphic widescreen style, Double Exposure holds up surprisingly well today, considering its low-budget limitations.

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Even among the principles involved in the making of Double Exposure, the evolution between this effort and Callan’s and director Hillman’s earlier slasher pic, 1974’s The Photographer, is a little out of focus. The story goes that writer/director/producer Hillman came to Callan years later with the intent of updating The Photographer, incorporating the murder scenes footage from that movie’s storyline of a Peeping Tom-like photographer (with mother issues) who killed his models, into a new movie, Double Exposure, where a slick L.A. photographer thinks he’s killing his models. For unspecified legal reasons, this approach was abandoned—involving the rights to the original material—and the decision was made to simply tweak the first movie’s story for this “remake” (along with the conflicting versions on this origin, there is uncertainty, as well, about if one particular scene from The Photographer still made it into Double Exposure). According to producer/star Callan, once the movie was shot (with a million dollar budget, give or take), Crown International Pictures was chosen to release it and, according to the star, the studio dumped the movie after a poorly-received preview run, leading Double Exposure to eventual “cult” status once it gained a small-but-loyal following from its subsequent video and cable exposure.

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Too bad, because for most of its running time, Double Exposure is an unexpectedly effective psychological thriller. Granted, Double Exposure has a few weak points in its story construction, including the unrealistic initial pick-up meeting between Pettet and Callan, as well as Callan’s big “For Your Consideration, Oscar” scene where he’s screaming back and forth into a mirror. It’s a great, scary scene SPOILER!, but one that doesn’t make much sense unless Callan is the killer, or unless he has a psychic connection to his brother that the movie doesn’t make clear enough (that symbiosis of dreams and killings between brothers is plausible…but the movie doesn’t make that connection well enough for the viewer).

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Those are small grumbles, though, considering Double Exposure’s sustained warped vision. Writer/director Hillman reportedly let the actors improvise a bit, and the results are a series of slightly “off,” vaguely uncomfortable, tense scenes of interactions between characters who are constantly on edge, always anxious, terrified of their own psyches, or of what they’re capable of, or of what will become of them. Double Exposure has a heavy edge to its vibe that comes from these believably open-ended dialogue scenes—scenes that you just don’t see (or feel) in the typical 80s cheapo slasher flicks (any time Stacy and Callan are together on screen, the viewer has no idea what’s going to happen next). Hillman allows plenty of time for the characters to develop, giving them background scenes that are rare in similar low-budget movies from this time period (like Stacy trying to pick up the girl in the bar…and failing, or the car racing scene, where we see both Stacy’s and Callan’s “death wishes”). Those character development shadings only help Double Exposure when it’s time to get down to the business of killing models.

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Perhaps because of the perceived onus of having one of your performances appear in what many critics deride as an inexpensive slasher movie, Michael Callan has been reluctant in the past to label Double Exposure as such. However, identifying those subgenre elements in Double Exposure doesn’t diminish or take away from its many potent straight dramatic scenes, or from the overall somber, tense tone that successfully permeates the movie. Director Hillman and cinematographer Stringer know how to move the camera in a smooth, silky, and threatening manner, while the murder scenes―the elements that most likely grabbed the intended audience―are staged with an unsettling, even sick, force.

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When Hillman has Callan “kill” (?) a model in a pool with a skimmer pole, he keeps cutting back to Callan’s disturbing face, set in a grotesque soundless scream. Sally Kirkland, showing off an amazing body, believably takes a few moments to finally realize she’s being strangled before real panic sets in and the killer snaps her neck. Toni’s death by a rattler in a bag over her head is perhaps the movie’s most gruesome killing, made even more so because we don’t actually see anything―we imagine the indescribable horror going on in that black trash bag. And April getting split open by Callan is technically quite impressive…and straight-up horrifying. And while we’re at it, since this element was as critical to an 80s slasher movie as gore was…the nudity is top-notch, including the aforementioned Kirkland, a beautiful actress named Teressa Macky who plays the horny, unlucky April, and gorgeous Joanna Pettet, one of the hottest actresses of the 60s, looking terrific here twenty years later.

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Double Exposure’s exceptional cinematography and music are of special note, as well. Cinematographer R. Michael Stringer’s rich, deep, glossy anamorphic widescreen look puts Double Exposure way ahead of most of its contemporary competition. As well, the score by Jack Goga (hey, you want frightening? Check out this guy’s story…) has a scary sweep to it that, when matched with the A-list cinematography, gives Double Exposure a visual/aural heft that puts it in the ranks with comparable front tier studio releases of the time. In addition to the P.O.V. shots of the killer stalking his victims, with Goga’s “ocean-in-a-subway” track heightening the suspense, there’s a remarkable, dizzying helicopter shot of Callan’s huge, white RV moving through traffic as Goga’s epic music pounds on the soundtrack (this is Dressed to Kill production values, not Student Bodies).

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The main leads are uniformly fine here, with Joanna Pettet sympathetic and lovely (as always), sweaty, unwell-looking Michael Callan—a long way from his Cat Ballou days—realistically harried and losing control, and James Stacy (another true-life horror show bio…) reaching some uncomfortable depths as the movie refuses to shy away from exploiting his handicap. Double Exposure is a memorable, disturbing little psychological suspenser. (Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray/DVD combo also includes a director’s commentary track, interviews with cinematographer Stringer, an isolated musical score, original trailer, a still gallery, and new reversible cover art).

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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